[Chtechcomm] Congress considers broadband fees

tbuckner at ibiblio.org tbuckner at ibiblio.org
Wed Feb 8 11:23:00 EST 2006

Congress considers broadband fees
Cable, phone operators want more

Companies that offer voice, video and other advanced services over the
Internet told Congress on Tuesday that they should not have to pay a toll
to use the high-speed network linking them to customers.
But the companies that build those broadband networks told the Senate
Commerce Committee they should be free to collect such fees, saying that
would speed the introduction of next-generation consumer services such as
downloading movies.

The hearing was one of Congress' first attempts to explore whether to use
legislation to preserve the Internet's tradition of free access -- a
concept often called "Net neutrality."

"Promoting an open and accessible Internet is critical for consumers,"
Vinton Cerf, vice president and Internet "evangelist" for Google, told the

Jeffrey Citron, chief executive of Vonage Holdings, which offers Internet
telephone service, said the Internet should work like the electricity
grid. "Power companies don't care who makes our toasters or televisions,"
he said. "We plug them in and they work."

But the network owners urged Congress not to get involved in the fight.

"Government, by its nature, is ill-equipped to make judgments about the
best business models for an industry," said Kyle McSlarrow, chief
executive of the National Cable and Telecommunications Association, an
industry group.

Reflecting the high stakes, the hearing room was packed with lobbyists.

In one camp are the heavy users of broadband networks, such as Google,
EarthLink, Amazon.com, eBay, and Microsoft.

They say Congress should prohibit the other camp -- cable operators and
large phone companies, including BellSouth, AT&T and Verizon
Communications -- from imposing access fees.

Network operators have floated at least two ideas for doing so.

One proposal is to charge fees to all companies that generate high volumes
of Internet traffic, much like states levy highway use taxes.

Another is to allow companies to pay fees for preferential treatment. For
example, if a search engine company signed a contract with a phone company
providing broadband Internet service, the phone company's subscribers
would see those search results appear faster than a competitor's who does
not pay the fee.

Either method would end what some operators call the "free lunch" enjoyed
by those who use their networks.

But Google argued Tuesday that setting up tolls on the fast lanes would
interfere with Internet users' ability to roam freely in cyberspace and
choose whatever services they like best.

"Allowing broadband carriers to control what people see and do online
would fundamentally undermine the principles that have made the Internet
such a success," said Cerf, known as "the father of the Internet" because
of his early theoretical work on it.

The content providers dismissed the notion of a "free lunch," saying
broadband customers pay monthly subscription fees to the network owners.

Broadband companies say that they wouldn't add fees for routine Internet
access, but want to build "express lanes" for certain high-end services,
such as delivering movies on demand.

"We will not block, impair or degrade content, applications or services,"
said Walter McCormick, CEO of the U.S. Telecom Association. "That is the
plainest and most direct way I know to address concerns that have been
raised about net neutrality."

So far, lawmakers have tended to split along party lines, with Democrats
demanding a greater commitment to neutrality.

For example, Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., said he opposes the "powerful
interests" that want to "break the Net."

But Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev., said he could understand why broadband
providers are seeking new revenue sources as they upgrade and expand
networks. "You do deserve a return on your investment," he said.

Lawmakers have introduced several bills involving network neutrality, but
Congress likely will hold more hearings before acting.

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